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'The Last Boss of Brighton': An American Wrote a Book About a Russian Mafia in New York by Beebe Nayfeld

'09.08.2022'

Lyudmila Balabay

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July 5 in the New York publishing house WilliamMorrow & Company came out book by Douglas Century The Last Boss of Brighton with a clarifying subtitle "Boris "Biba" Nayfeld and the Rise of the Russian Mafia in America". The book tells about the life of one of the most famous bosses of the Russian mafia in New York. Nayfeld was "Russian" in the American sense of the word, in fact he is a Belarusian Jew.

In order to create this book, Douglas Century met with Neufeld in New York for several years. About how these conversations took place, he told in the book itself. Below we provide a full translation of this part of the work in the first person.

“I shouldn't have been alive today,” was one of the first things Boris Nayfeld said to me when I met him four years ago.

On a sweltering Saturday in late June 2018, we sat outside at Tatiana Grill, a popular restaurant on Brighton Beach's waterfront. We sipped Russian vodka, surrounded by young women from St. Petersburg, Kyiv and Odessa, wearing more make-up than clothes.

Known to his friends and family as "Biba" and described in the New York tabloids as "the last boss of the Russian mafia in America," Boris had every right to be surprised at the fact that he was alive. The Mafiosi smiled as he shared his thoughts on my digital voice recorder. He survived several assassination attempts. He was shot at point-blank range with a submachine gun in 1986. He also escaped unscathed in 1991 when a grenade planted under his Lincoln Town Car failed to explode. At the age of 18, he was sent to hard labor for three years in a Soviet prisoner of war camp. After emigrating to the United States, he spent much of his life in various federal prisons.

Boris is now 74 years old and still looks imposing, with a shaved head, piercing blue eyes and a robust body covered in tattoos made with prison paint. Four creepy skulls; a menacing scorpion rattling its tail; king cobra in a massive hood; a star of David embedded in a Hebrew Bible surmounted by an intricate crown... Initiates into the world of Russian organized crime can read the drawings on his upper body as an illustrated storybook displaying Nayfeld's entire resume as a career criminal: a track record that includes criminal records for racketeering, heroin trafficking , money laundering and extortion. He was also suspected of organizing several high-profile gang murders. Although he was never charged in these cases, and “Biba” himself, of course, denied his participation in these crimes.

Few of his contemporaries from the underworld of Soviet émigrés in Brighton Beach lived to his age. Many, though not all, died violent deaths. Boris is practically the last mafia of his generation, still leading an active lifestyle.

The last survivor

His life story illustrates a special moment in modern history. Then a wave of Jews fleeing Soviet oppression in the 1970s arrived in the United States and followed in the footsteps of a previous generation of young hooligans such as Meyer Lansky, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. They used both brains and brawn to make a fortune in America through criminal methods.

This wave of Soviet emigrant criminals in the 1970s and 1980s was unlike any of the previous ones. They were cosmopolitan, sophisticated, often university-educated people who survived for years in the Soviet Union, using their ingenuity and courage to deceive the corrupt state. They settled in the declining South Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach, which had been a haven for immigrant Jews for generations. And they turned it into their own “Little Odessa”.

On the subject: The story of the 'diamond' street of New York: a chronology of banditry

Nayfeld and people like him distinguished themselves by their fearlessness

They cooperated with the Italian-American mafia, but they were never afraid of it. They joked about how easy it is to steal in America. They scoffed at the convenience of American prisons compared to the starvation conditions in Soviet Union camps. They demonstrated ruthlessness and careless use of violence, which shocked even experienced US law enforcement officers. Unlike more established organized crime groups, their strength was that they felt they had nothing to lose.

Yes, they were tough. But their intelligence, creativity and global ambition really set them apart from the ranks of American gangsters. The schemes concocted by Boris and his fellow criminals from the Soviet Union, even today, seem remarkable in their ingenuity. These were guys who survived in a totalitarian state, who normalized illegal activities, who viewed crime as a form of anti-communist rebellion and even elevated it to the rank of art.

In the United States, their illegal activities have evolved from daring jewelry scams to the most sophisticated financial fraud, stock manipulation and international money laundering. In a few short years, the tentacles of the Brighton Beach mafia stretched from Antwerp to Berlin, from Bangkok to Sierra Leone. Boris Nayfeld and his associates were among the first to notice and use the untold riches amassed in the economic chaos after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

They also targeted many of the mundane aspects of daily life that we all take for granted in the United States. From filling up our cars to the credit cards we use to pay for it. Soviet-born criminals and their Italian-American mafia partners stole billions of dollars in excise taxes on gasoline through chain schemes that became the property of the criminal world. It took years for both the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service to figure out how they do it. They have perfected new forms of bank fraud and countless health insurance frauds. And they forged everything from hundred-dollar bills to Marlboro cigarettes.

Their criminal genius lay in exploiting the invisible weaknesses of the economic system that were right under their noses.

When I met Boris Nayfeld, he was 70 years old. He's just been released on parole for the latest felony he's caught. A bizarre assassination plot turned into an extortion scheme that has been featured in the tabloids for weeks. At a sentencing hearing in the Southern District of New York in July 2016, the prosecutor described Boris as “an extremely complex individual with a rich criminal record” who has spent “most of his adult life in Russian organized crime.”

“Extremely complex” is putting it mildly.

In the four years I've known Boris—interviewing him at home, hanging out with him in bustling Brooklyn restaurants and sizzling bathhouses—his identity remains a mystery to me. He is both intimidating and charming, cunning and somehow surprisingly naive.

I watched him describe with complete detachment the scenes of extraordinary violence committed against him, around him, by himself. I also listened to him talk with passion and sophistication about reading Dostoevsky novels while in solitary confinement for eight consecutive months in the infamous Special Correctional Unit in Lower Manhattan.

Boris has repeatedly said that he does not regret anything he has done in his life. And yet across his belly, in large blue Hebrew letters, the words “God, forgive me!” Are tattooed.

It is difficult to reconcile many of these internal contradictions. But I think it is this duality that makes Boris Naifeld a unique and fascinating character.

On the subject: Ruthless thief in law: how the father of the Russian mafia kept all Brighton Beach at bay

His story provides the first authentic look at the origins of modern Russian organized crime and its ongoing consequences in our modern world. Vladimir Putin's Russia is often described as a virtual mafia state. The criminal career of Boris Nayfeld, a man about the same age as Putin, gives us a unique, detailed insight into how the former Soviet Union became the largest kleptocracy in history.

On the one hand, this is a classic immigrant story. In the early 1950s, Boris Mikhailovich Nayfeld was just an abandoned Jewish child in a small town in Belarus. In 1979, he managed to escape to the West. And by the early 1990s, he was a multi-millionaire driving a Bentley and at the top of the New York crime scene.

Almost from the first moment I met Boris Nayfeld, he fascinated me. This may partly be due to the fact that our family roots are very similar. Although one of my grandfathers was from Warsaw, three of my other grandparents came to the United States from Bialystok, then a predominantly Jewish city in the Russian Empire, about four hundred miles (650 km) west of Gomel, Boris' hometown.

Although the borders were constantly changing, during the time of my grandparents, the Jews of Belarus lived within the Grodno Governorate, the far western province of the empire of Tsar Nicholas II, bordering Poland and home to some of the largest cities - Bialystok, Grodno, Minsk, Brest. Here Jews were allowed to enter, live and work under the restrictive laws of the Pale of Settlement. Unlike Boris's family, my grandparents were lucky to leave the Russian Empire on time.

As teenagers, traveling alone, sometimes falsely indicating their age in official documents, they escaped pogroms and tsarist military service during the First World War. And later, the devastation of scorched earth during the Nazi invasion of the USSR, which claimed the lives of almost all of their older brothers and sisters and their families. The Naifelds were the ones who remained.

Citizens of the USSR, they became part of an incomprehensible collective sacrifice in the war against Hitler. Boris's grandparents only survived the Nazi invasion by fleeing deep into the Soviet Union, settling in Kazakhstan. After the war, returning to Gomel, they endured decades of official anti-Semitism under the repressive Stalinist regime.

Gangster nothing human is alien

One morning in 2019, while visiting Boris's spacious Staten Island home, I woke up to find that he had made scrambled eggs and salmon pancakes. He cooks very well. When I asked where the legs of his culinary talent come from, he explained that in his early twenties he auditioned for several semesters at a culinary school in Gomel.

But before breakfast, we both had to swallow our morning levothyroxine tablets on an empty stomach. We were slightly surprised to learn that we have a common autoimmune disease - hypothyroidism, and we were prescribed exactly the same dosage of drugs to correct it.

In the brightly sunlit kitchen, Boris smiled and offered me a glass of hot tea. It reminded me of how my grandfather Willy drank his tea. Black. In a glass of water. Not in a circle. I remembered how he, too, knew how to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Babel in the Russian original. How he also loved playing cards and gambling with his Yiddish and Russian speaking friends. Although they preferred pinochle, and Boris - clubber.

Of course, none of my grandparents were convicted felons, let alone heroin dealers, money launderers or murder suspects. But over the years that I talked with Boris Nayfeld, I often wondered: what would my grandparents think of him? Would they have treated him with disgust—as a criminal who made his fortune by profiting from his fellow Jews? Or would they, even reluctantly, recognize in Boris Mikhailovich Naifeld a familiar character: a Jew with an indomitable spirit, a Jew whom absolutely nothing could break?

Over the past four years, I have listened to Boris tell mind-boggling stories of greed, violence and betrayal.

Breathtaking tales of gunfights in broad daylight in Brooklyn. Daring robberies in the diamond districts of Manhattan and Antwerp. Mountains of pure Chinese white heroin smuggled from Thailand via Warsaw to Kennedy Airport. Suitcases stuffed with millions of counterfeit US currency. High stakes gambling marathons in West African beach resorts. Escapades with young call girls in Moscow casinos and aboard the yachts of the oligarchs in the Black Sea.

I only spoke to Boris for a few hours that first day at Tatiana's in Brighton Beach. And then I jotted down a phrase in one of my notebooks, which still seems to me a very appropriate introduction to my book: "Welcome to the dark side of the American dream."

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